Water of Life - Smokehead Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky
For anyone following our Water of Life series, the fact that I harbour a weak spot for anything that is distilled on the Hebridean island Islay should not come as a surprise as I love the iodine coastal flavours, amplified by the idiosyncratic local peat that ignites the bonfires the flames of which caress the top of your mouth.
Enjoying Islay whiskies is more often than not perceived to be a stage that the unexperienced palate has to work up to, via detours through the glens of the Speyside, Highlands and other territory that proffers more accessible drops.
Be it as it may and no matter where your starting point or malt preference is, the journey through the world of whisky is ever evolving and Smokehead is an example par excellence for new products constantly being added to the fold.
There are eight distilleries on Islay and chances are that once you fall prey to the beautifully pungent assault that their flavourful emissions exert on you, you will be at least vaguely familiar with their individual characteristics.
Every time a new drop from Islay emerges, especially one whose origin is not disclosed, one cannot help but be intrigued as to its origin.
Smokehead is being bottled by Ian Macleod distillers, who are responsible for an array of great whiskies, who own the unpeated Glengoyne distillery and the Speyside sleeper in Tamdhu.
I will focus on Smokehead’s three core variations, the first core one of which should be one that can be tracked down relatively easy from your local liquor dealer ship.
Bottled at 43%, the glowing tan coloured hits the nostrils with wafts of wet woody smoke, that is accentuated by caramelly, seaweedy toffee notes. Given the telling name, there are no big surprises here.
What materializes on the palate is far from complex, however, there is an interesting build-up: Resting on a solid foundation of peat, coffee notes and burnt ham flavours are punctuated by citrussy and spicy peppery highlights.
Adding a few droplets of water, brings chocolatey flavours out, which seamlessly transition into a mellow finish.
Given the affordable pricing and contemporary black and gold packaging adorned with the trademark smoking skull, this entry level Smokehead seems to be aimed at a younger audience, capitalizing on renewed interest in whisky. It offers a very approachable, perfectly drinkable drop that offers a simple enjoyment reminiscent one of a less defined and edgy very young Ardbeg – an entry point for the uninitiated, before a step is taken towards the more complex and domineering whiskies Islay has to offer.
Things get interesting with Smokehead’s Sherry Bomb expression as the nose is not only greeted by the salty campfire on the beach, one would expect, but also by vanilla-ry, orangey, darky fruity and minerally notes, that rest of a field of tobacco. Not surprisingly, giving it a bit of air and room to breathe, there smells reminiscent of a rich Bordeaux. Clean, fresh and mouth wateringly delicious.
What the aroma promised, materializes on the palate: The most subtle sweetness heralds a welcome onslaught of peaty, oaky smoke that is framed again by vanilla and orangey notes with lots of dry sherry.
An elongated smoky, finish bounces between fruity flavours via barbecued meaty flavours to sweet chocolate, with the Sherry bits sometimes reminding me of cherry lollies – which works great as the resulting total is a melange that is much greater than the sum of individual ingredients suggests.
Bottled at 48% ABV and still at the young end of the spectrum, the Sherry Bomb Smokehead is a fully flavoured and well-calibrated step up and a fun one with a modern take on the tested and tried take on Sherry that will definitely enter my rotation.
Ready to take things up a notch of three?
Here you go: Smokehead High Voltage
Now we are talking.
As we all know and as it has been reinforced by Acca Dacca and Electric Six, per definitionem “high voltage” means an electronic potential large enough to inflict harm on living organisms, and in this case, it of course refers to the higher alcohol content.
However, high ABV is not the only trick in the bag of this expression and the aroma of gun smoke, burnt earth, vanilla, cashew nuts and spicy pepper hints at the complexity that will unfold on the palate.
Once it hits the roof of the mouth and the first wave of peaty sensations subsides, nice nuances of barley, brown sugar, iodine, brine, toffee and sweet bonfire-y peat.
The elongated well-calibrated finish meanders deliciously between sea saltiness, paprika and tobacco and as the smoke lingers, it makes one lust for another dram.
While Smokehead standard version is a good value-for-money everyday sipper, the High Voltage is definitely the gem of the Smokehead line-up and plays in another league.
Word around the campfire has that there is a limited “extra black” 18-Year-Old Smokehead variant, which after the HV experience has made it on my list to track down.
images from company website